‘FERN’ remains a humorous, slightly derogatory, family term for a member who has done, or said, something silly — don’t ask me why it was coined — and whenever I see a fern I think of that. Makes me chuckle.

But, there is nothing negative about this genus, which deserves its place in any shady part of the garden where many other plants will not thrive.

I have just bought a classic bright yellow Massey Ferguson tractor, which may seem a Fernish thing to do, and which may not be seen as strictly relevant to ferns — but let me explain.

Isle of Wight County Press: A mature Dryopteris felix-mas.

A mature Dryopteris felix-mas.

I have a bit of meadow, which needs control and I do not yet have the time for animals — but in the way of the flail mower is a host of native ferns. Lovely plants, but in the wrong place.

Too good to be mown asunder, some now reside in a temporary home before transplant into a soon-to-be-under-construction shade garden, complete with cascading farm water hopper tilted on its side, and in a sunnier spot a small wildlife pond.

By the waterside will be a host of Dryopteris filix-mas, otherwise known as the wood or worm fern. Twenty-five years ago I rescued mature clumps of this beauty from the front garden of the old Langdon’s builder’s yard in Ryde before they were lost to development, and know just how fine they look.

Another Dryopteris, but very different, is D.felix-mas Linearis Polydactyla. This deciduous fern forms large ‘shuttle-cock’ shaped clumps of slender, arching, fronds up to 3ft in height.

Isle of Wight County Press: Dryopteris Linearis Polydactyla from Thompson&Morgan.

Dryopteris Linearis Polydactyla from Thompson & Morgan.

Like most ferns, it enjoys damp soils in dappled shade, making it perfect for woodlands, damp borders and planting at the edge of shaded ponds. It has also been given an RHS Award of Garden Merit for its excellent performance.

Ferns are ancient, more than 360 million years old, producing spores instead of flowers or seeds, their fronds almost mystically unfurling from crosiers at the heart of the plant.

Hardy ferns need no frost protection but some, more exotic half-hardy varieties can be grown outdoors here, especially if given protection if things get nasty in winter.

But a native which deserves pride of place, is Blechnum spicant, known as the Deer Fern. It is a compact British native often seen growing on old stone walls and occasionally on rotting trunks or porous bark crevices of mature trees in shady, damp woodland conditions.

More often than not it is quite small but grows in stature given good garden conditions of fertile moisture-retentive soil incorporating well-rotted farmyard manure.

Ferns come in many shapes, sizes, textures and colours. Nearly all are woodland plants that like those conditions replicated in the garden. You won’t be a Fern if you choose one, or more...

  • Because there are so many different types ranging from the towering — and pricey — tree ferns, down to dwarf specimens, choices can be narrowed by visiting gardens, especially in spring when they are emerging in all their glory in woodland settings. Also, you can ask at nearby garden centres which should offer a range of ferns that do well in our special Island conditions.


  • Personally, in our ever-warming climes I don’t think it’s necessary to lift dahlia or begonia tubers and gladioli corms to store over the winter months — unless they are planted in wet, heavy soil when they will be prone to rot. Instead, when foliage has died back, simply cover with a layer of protective mulch.
  • Hardwood cuttings from deciduous shrubs can be taken now.
  • Prune rambling and climbing roses after they have finished flowering and tie-in the stems before autumn winds cause damage.
  • Clear up fallen rose leaves to prevent diseases such as black spot from over-wintering. To avoid the spread of fungi, don’t compost the leaves, instead burn them or put them in green waste.
  • Clear overhanging plants from pathways to maintain access around the garden.
  • Re-use old grow bags by cutting off the top and sowing late salad crops. Cropping can be extended into winter if under glass or a cloche.

Are you an Isle of Wight gardener with a question for Richard? You can email him on richryde@tiscali.co.uk